PEOPLEText: Satoru Tanno

A documentary film Synthetic Pleasures depicts how human beings and the environment are being influenced by the development of technology. Last year, in Sundance film festival, Synthetic Pleasures was screened and highly regarded as a milestone film in the 90s.
SHIFT took an interview with Iara Lee, director of the film and asked her about the film and her forthcoming documentary film Modulations.

When did you start living in the U.S?

I moved from Brazil. I came to the U.S in ’89. I used to run the film festival in Brazil. So, I would watch 10 films a day. I would go to Canne, Berlin, Venice, all the fests. I scout interesting films for my festival in Brazil. And then, I decided that I wanted to go behind the camera. So, I moved to the U.S and attended a film school and made three short films. Synthetic Pleasures was actually going to be be my fourth short film. But, the subject was so interesting, I decided to expand and it became my first full length film.

I heard it took three years for you to release your first full feature length film.

Yeah, it was a big work in progress. I went a little and it expanded more and more, it was not like something that started with a script or a storyboard. So, it kind of evolved with time, you know. Then once the film was ready, I did the festival circuit. I went to the main festivals like Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, and I spoke to many distributors in the U.S, for example, and they just didn’t have a grasp on how to go about distributing an odd film like that. So, I decided to distribute it myself. In a very successful way I got this film into 73 cities in the United States.

There’re many famous interviews of subculture heroes such as Timothy Leary, R.U.Sirius etc… What was your motive for filming Synthetic Pleasures?

Ah, these people are basically the technological icons of our contemporary society and I was always a big admirer of Timothy Leary, R.U.Sirius’s philosophy. So, I thought he would be perfect for the movie. He is the one who always kind of updated himself all the time. The same way, he used drug and (in an empowerment way), He thought computers with the same thing. You know, computers were considered like empowering machines to transcend the boundaries of the physical world. And, R.U.Sirius has always been a very revolutionary person in the sense that he also thinks technology should be used for fantasy and, you know, to go beyond to more reality. So, I just did a lot of research and chose the people that would be the best people to create a content for my film. When I first approached them, they had no idea what I was gonna do with it. They were all very surprised at the end once the film was ready.
They really enjoyed the film. I felt very good because they kind of supported my film when I had nothing to prove, you know. They basically took chances by supporting my project. I was very happy to see that they at the end were very pleased with the final film. That was Timothy Leary’s last appearance in a motion picture. A lot of people made video programs with him when he got sick, when he was almost dying. But, it’s definitely his last appearance in a motion picture.

I very well remember R.U.Sirius was in a bath tub.

R.U.Sirius was not a very serious person.(laugh) Whatever I would ask him to do, he would do it, you know. I basically said, no, what about we do it here in the bath tub. And, he’s like, “Yeah, sure”. He took his clothes off and ,in one second, he was in his bath tub. Roll camera roll film and let’s do it!!!

That’s why he was in the bath tub. (laugh)

He is a very spontaneous and open-minded person. he’s totally open for any kind of experimentation.

I guess that you tried just to describe the future of technology….

Yeah, and it’s a little bit of a warning, too, as you say. Because I can’t really define an answer, It’s one not just good or bad, it’s good and bad, it’s evil and, it’s also wonderful, you know. So, it really depends on how we’re using it. A lot of times, people want simplistic answers, you know. Sometimes, they say “Oh, this film that has a strong point of view”. But, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t think things are so simple. So, I tried to convey with the film the complexity of the subject. If you are somehow an (alienated) person, you may just look at the indoor beaches, Seagaia, and say “oh, this is cool”. But, if you are someone who has deeper knowledge and deeper ideas philosophically you start questioning all these guaranteed pleasures of the indoor beach. People’s reaction to the movie tells me a lot about who they are. People can perceive the film in different levels. Some people just look at the facade of the film and they just think it’s just cool, you know. But, people who are more interested in aesthetics, morality, philosophy, they look at the movie and they see a lot of deeper thoughts and questions that the film raises.

So, some people who’ve watched SP say it’s a positive film, but some say it’s a negative one…

I know, isn’t that interesting? The film was just there but people can perceive the different angles. And it’s very funny that some people even think the film is (embracing) technology in a positive way. I, as the film maker, feel this film is almost very cynical and makes fun of the cliche of the technology and somehow very critical. But. I did (encounter) a lot of people that consider the film a positive look on technology. It’s interesting to see how people look at the film in different ways.

Are you by any chance planing to take Synthetic pleasures 2?

Oh, no. I think this new movie I’m doing is a little bit of an extension of Synthetic Pleasures 2, but in a different way. A lot people had asked me “Why don’t you make into a series because the subject is so interesting. You could forever keep elaborating on this subject”. But, I just kind of like need different challenges all the time. So, I’m doing this new movie on music. And for me, it’s like a whole new challenge. I wouldn’t just like to stay on one subject forever. But, I encourage people to go ahead and do a Synthetic Pleasures Vol.2.(laugh)

In the future, you said you’re going to take a fictional film in Brazil.

Yeah, that’s another challenge. It’s very different to make documentaries or experimental movies and to (decide) to jump and make a fiction film, this whole different set of rules and regulations how to go about it. So, it would be a challenge. I think once I’m done with this new experimental movie on music, I’ll probably do a fiction film with actors and the whole thing.

I think you must’ve watched a lot of films in your life. Who’s your favourite film director?

Ah, I really like Kurosawa and Ozu.(laugh) They both happen to be Japanese. Ozu is just so deep philosophically. Kurosawa is the same, you know. They are ,for me, very emotional directors that I admire a lot.

In an interview in the past, you mentioned about the idea of a 24 hour pleasure machine, and said, like, it’s nonsense. I believe because we experience bad times, people can enjoy a good time. Things are relative and conditional, not absolute… you know.

I think that’s the thing. That’s the bottom line of everything, you know. People always want to be simplistic and divide things in good and bad, and black and white. It’s not just that simple. I think, especially now, at the end of this millennium, people really started realizing that the distinction between humans and machines, the distinction between reality and hyper reality. What is to be a woman, what is to be a man, all this kind of like cliched values that we’ve been holding as ultimate truth. They are really up for grabs. People are re-evaluating all these concepts. And, I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the movie. That makes people realize that things are not so black and white. I do believe that we live in the gray area. I think that’s what I think is beautiful. We’re reinventing everything. We’re reinventing and re-evaluating all those concepts.

However, the more technology advances, probably the more we desire to enjoy ourselves. In that case, do you think we can ever keep on enjoying ourselves?

Yeah, but there is this danger of pleasuring ourselves to death because I think in a way we’re enjoying too much sometimes.(laugh) And, this desire of control, this desire of perfection, that desire of 100 percent pleasures will defeat the purpose in the sense that, if you’re in orgasm 24 hours a day, then orgasm has no value any more. So, sometime, we have to step back and be careful because it is a problem if we amuse ourselves to death.

I think it’s almost similar to drug abuse, like, the more you feel high, the more you feel depressed when you don’t have it afterwards.

Right, I think human beings have to deal with the fact that we have to accept contradictory things and to just (have one and not the other) makes the world less interesting, you know. If you’re happy all the time, and, if you have pleasure 24 hour a day, that is not pleasure any more. That’s why I use Oscar Wilde’s quote, where he says “Those are the two bad things in life..If you get everything you wish and if you don’t get anything at all; In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

“Modulations” is a portrait of the technological era of sound. Beginning with Can and Kraftwerk’ industrial folk music, progressing through Detroit techno and Chicago house, and ending with jungle’s beat collages and the hip-hop avant-garde.
Of particular interest is creating a dialogue between the manufacturers and designers of both synthesizers and samplers and the artists who work with them in order to better understand how these machines are used (or abused).
Another goal is to explain the relationships between the work of the original dub producers, hip-hop pioneers and classical minimalists with contemporary electronic musicians with a focus on innovation.
The movie will include in-studio footage with various artists discussing their creative process, live performances from around the world, commentary from academia, and an exploration of dj-ing as an interpretive process of music making.
The aim of “Modulations” is to provide a sense of history and context in which today’s electronic music can be understood; to entertain the converted and to validate ‘techno’ (used here as a very loose term) to the nay-sayers.

Text: Satoru Tanno

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